Nick Clegg: Is It All His Fault?

Ben Worthy and Mark Bennister

Nick Clegg has been Deputy Prime Minister for just over two years. Recent polls of his leadership have not been kind: both his party and the electorate do not seem impressed. Hence his pose in the speech at the Lib-Dem conference as he characterised his party (and presumably himself) as the responsible one attacked by ‘vitriol and abuse, from Right and Left, as we work every day to keep this Government anchored in the centre ground’.

Nick Clegg has not achieved what he aimed or hoped to do: the referendum on AV was lost, the House of Lords reform dropped and even his apology doesn’t seem to have gone down as well as he hoped. It is claimed that Vince Cable is circling.

Here again is the link between personality and context. Is Nick Clegg a victim of ‘circumstance’, as one journalist put it? Or is it all his fault? Is he the ‘weakling, a liar and an incompetent fool’, unable or unwilling to change his situation?

To some extent Clegg and his party are the ‘classic’ junior party in a coalition, epitomised by portrayals of Clegg as ‘Cameron’s butler, wife or dog’. There is only so much they can do about this, hence his ‘mansion tax’ call (rejected by Cameron).

For Clegg himself, his steep rise to fame through ‘Cleggmania’ may also mean a fall was very likely, if not inveitable-Cleggmania was unlikely to last long against the realities of power sharing. The sheer range and vehemence of criticism in the media may mean Nick Clegg is some sort of lightning rod or a symbol of increasing personalised politics. As a result of this media portrayal, as this fascinating piece points out, like Cameron, Clegg’s once positive traits have turned into negatives: his boyishness to ‘siren’-like charm or smarmy seductiveness.  Clegg’s courtship of the electorate was portrayed as a ‘holiday romance’ turned sour. So sour that he is now the ‘effigy of choice’ in protests.

But it isn’t all circumstance. Others have pointed to Clegg’s inexperience in the Coalition negotiations and later political manoeuvres. It’s not only Clegg – everyone in the Lib-Dems from leader to staff and special advisers has suffered from this. Yet some accuse him of having a particular talent for wrenching defeat from near victory, or at least turning the ‘tricky’ into ‘disaster’:

For months, if not years, constitutional experts have been warning him that Lords reform faced all sorts of serious obstacles, but he did not listen to their demand for a strategy until it was too late. He has mismanaged this great political project, just as he previously blundered over both student fees and NHS reforms, in both cases turning tricky political situations for his party into outright disaster. Clegg was only elected to the Commons in 2005, but the longer his leadership of his party goes on, the more it appears that he was too inexperienced for the job (full article here)

But what is Nick Clegg to do? He may be hoping that history will see him right. In time he may be seen as the resolute man who made Lib-Dems a party of government. There are historical turnarounds for reputation. George Orwell famously described Prime Minister Clement Attlee as a dead fish beginning to stiffen. Now, more than 60 years later his name is associated with great concrete achievements – even Thatcher didn’t hide her admiration. However, as Attlee pointed out, his achievements were based on a thick pile of legislative achievement rather than words. Clegg needs something on the statute book. Soon.

Dr Ben Worthy is a lecturer in the Department of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London. Dr Mark Bennister is a Lecturer in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University. He was previously a Teaching Fellow in British Politics at UCL, based in the Constitution Unit.